U.S. Defense Secretary OKs release of last British resident at Guantánamo Bay

Shaker Aamer, cleared for release since at least 2009, poses for the International Red Cross at the old Camp Delta in a photo released by his family.
Shaker Aamer, cleared for release since at least 2009, poses for the International Red Cross at the old Camp Delta in a photo released by his family.

The United States and Britain announced Friday that the last British resident held as a war-on-terror prisoner would be released after more than 13 years of imprisonment at Guantánamo Bay.

Shaker Aamer, 48, originally from Saudi Arabia, was detained in Afghanistan in 2001 and has been held at Guantánamo since Feb. 13, 2002. He has never been charged with a crime while in U.S. custody.

Although Aamer’s case has been a cause célèbre in the United Kingdom, it was little known in the United States until he was featured in a 2013 60 Minutes episode shouting, “Tell the world the truth.” He has a wife and four children in London.

A Pentagon statement said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter approved the transfer “following a thorough review of his case and taking into consideration the robust security assurances that will be provided by the British government, one of our strongest allies who has supported our efforts to close the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.”

He will be returned to Britain some time after Oct. 24 once a 30-day notice delivered to Congress on Thursday expires, according to Obama administration officials.

A 2007 military intelligence profile considered Aamer a “close associate of” Osama bin Laden with a history of “jihadist combat” — a disruptive detainee who spent years on disciplinary status for inciting disturbances and refusing to do what the guards told him.

“Shaker is not and never has been a terrorist, and has been cleared by the Americans themselves for eight years,” his British-American lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said in a statement following disclosure of the release order.

Stafford Smith called the announcement “great news, albeit about 13 years too late.”

He urged the British government to pressure President Barack Obama to ignore the statutory 30-day notice period and put the prisoner “on a plane tomorrow” so he can be reunited with his family and “start rebuilding his life.”

According to attorneys, Aamer was approved for repatriation to Saudi Arabia as far back as 2007. An on-again, off-again hunger striker, he rejected that idea and instead insisted he be reunited with his family. In recent years he renounced his Saudi citizenship. His lawyer said Aamer’s youngest child was born the day Aamer got to Guantánamo and was confined to Camp X-ray.

CBS’ 60 Minutes team captured Aamer’s voice when it was recording during a prison camp tour of a disciplinary block, and was allowed to broadcast it — unusually, since U.S. military escorts typically erase the voices of protesting captives. In the CBS audio, however, he called out:

“Please we are tired. Either you leave us to die in peace or either tell the world the truth. Open up the place, let the world come and visit!”

He also is heard to say: “You cannot walk not even half a meter without being chained. Is that a human being? That's the treatment of an animal!”

Capitol Hill was slow to react to the news on the day House Speaker John Boehner resigned and a day after Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, expressed “grave concerns” about the release. “Despite the rhetoric of a sophisticated PR campaign, it is clear to me that this is a dangerous individual whose release will put Americans at greater risk,” he said in a statement.

He added that Aamer “would walk into a large financial windfall,” a likely reference to a multi-million dollar 2010 British government settlement with freed Guantánamo captives over allegations of UK intelligence service complicity in their captivity and mistreatment.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the former Select Intelligence Committee chairwoman, said she supported the release decision.

“I’m confident they can prevent Shaker Aamer from harming U.S. and British national security,” she said in a statement, adding: “In order to finally close Guantánamo, we’ll have to deal with troublesome detainees like Shaker Aamer.”

Moreover, she said, “It has become clear that Aamer’s continued detention at Guantánamo was complicating the relationship with our most important foreign partner.”

Aamer is one of the 53 cleared-for-release detainees at the Pentagon prison of 114 captives. The Obama administration wants to transfer those who can’t be released to U.S. lockups in order to close the detention center in Cuba. Congress so far forbids transfers to the United States, and is considering imposing tougher conditions for release on Carter.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg